Camp near Oakwood Swamp
June 25th 1862
I now take this opportunity to answer your last letter which was received in due time stating all well at home and I hope these few lines may find you the same. I am as well as usual and with the exception of being on duty about half of the time, are doing well. Sunday I was out on picket duty and we lived on the fat of the land and the Secesh. Sunday—after the officers had gone back to camp or their posts—we surrounded 4 cows and with some soft words and a little coaxing with a stick we managed to get milk enough to put in our coffee. And while we were at supper, a small turtle made his appearance and we retained him as a prisoner of war. And as he could not give a good account of himself, we lynched him and soon had him in a cup ready for breakfast. And one of the boys went out and got some new potatoes so we had new potatoes & turtle soup for breakfast. So we had better than we bargained for. And in the course of the day we managed to get what cherries we wanted so that we went back to camp well satisfied with the day’s duty.
Everything was quiet along the lines with the exception of a few wild turkeys that we did not dare to fire on (it being an alarm to fire a gun) and some guerrilla bands of mosquitoes that would make an occasional sortie on us but with no other effect than to wound some of us and wake the rest of us. The season is much earlier here than in York State. Wheat and oats are nearly ripe and the negroes are busily engaged harvesting it. And it is amusing to see a troop of them hard at work. The whole family is out and they all make themselves useful. I suppose apples are large enough to store and peaches are almost full grown, and if nothing happens, we will get our share of them as they come along.
You wanted to know if we had much rain down here. You would say we did if you were here to see it fall and hear the thunder as it comes on—peal after peal—sharper than the cannon’s roar, seeming to tear the whole heavens to pieces. Last night we had a severe hail storm with the rain and after it was over, I went out and found some [hailstones] nearly half as large as hen’s eggs. And night before last, the thunder woke me up out of a sound sleep and the peals were so sharp and quick that at first I thought we were attacked and I rose up and grasped my gun, but soon found out what was the matter by the rain spattering in my face. And I laid down again quite relieved for it does not sound very well to be roused up and hear the order to fall in in two minutes and perhaps go and support some battery that was watching the enemy.
Since I began this [letter] I have been in the line of battle and [we] are now under arms to be ready to fall in in one minute and a half to be ready to see to the left. But I will wait and see what is to be done and take you back on the field of battle. [Here follows a recount of the Battle of Fair Oaks.]
One hour before the battle begun, some were preparing their dinners, some were playing cards, some were reading their 15 cent newspapers, and some were discussing the war, and some from every regiment were out on fatigue duty, when all of a sudden the pickets are fired upon and sound the alarm—but not before they have sent over a shell or two as though it were for a signal to commence the game that was to drive the Union army a little beyond nowhere. And accordingly, they march up in the face of a heavy cannonading and rifle shot and musketry, seemingly intending to see us cut and run at the first fire. But in that they fail. When they are nicely out from under cover of the woods, the order comes to fire and the torrent of deadly hail is poured with their then fast-thinning ranks, but the gaps are filled up as fast as made and on they come until we begin to think that they intend [to] drive us out of the pits at the point of the bayonet. But we work the harder and take the better aim and soon they turn and retreat—but not in confusion and many are cut [down] before they are out of range and we get back into the pits and breath a minute. And not for a minute, for they are reinforced and again they come—not only in front but on both sides, and we now see that our Battery is silenced, the gunners being mostly killed or wounded and the grape all expended and most of the horses are killed in the harness and we have to retreat to keep from being surrounded and taken prisoners. But we meet reinforcements and fall in and take a part with them in the increasing fight. And we see that the enemy were all the time gaining ground for a time but it does not last. They are driven back on the left and we see across the campground again and see them march in regiment after regiment—fresh troops—ready for the fray. But we now have the advantage of the woods and although few in numbers, we were hosts in feeling and they could not come down upon us. It seemed as if there was a fence of balls between us and their balls mostly went over our heads. But they sung awfully and made us dip down some at first but I thought of what Father told me—not to dodge for the balls that went whizz did not hurt, and to remember I was in the right and it would give me a steady nerve. And so it did—almost to surprise me—for I have been more excited when shooting at squirrels than I was then. And there we stood and fought until night set in and the firing stopped as if by mutual consent and I started in quest of the regiment which found about 10, and down I camped with nothing to protect us from the weather but what we had had the luck to pick up. I had a rubber blanket which I divided with Dan Reed and it kept us from getting wet that night.
The next day—Sunday—-the fight began early in the morning and we were marched is so as to take part if needed but we were not needed and so we were toted around from one place to another nearly all day and so tired from the day’s fight that we could hardly go. And at night we were all routed up by a mule getting loose and you had ought to have heard the noise—it was like disturbing a lot of bees, and each one speaking for himself. But we soon found out the cause of the alarm and down we got to sleep again. In the morning I heard that there was a burial party yo be sent out to see to bury the dead and find the wounded and wishing to see the carnage of the battlefield, I volunteered to go as one. We started on our mournful expedition and when within a mile of the main battle, the men and horses, wagons, clothing, and equippage were to be seen here. A man would be seen [and] a dead horse nearby—as if sharing each others fate. But when we got up to our old campground, it was beyond the power of the pen to describe it for every way you turned, the dead were to be seen strewed over the ground. In some places there were to be seen 15 or 20 lying in one place where the grape had done its work of destruction and already the stench from the dead bodies was almost suffocating. And all around were to be seen our men busily engaged in finding their dead comrades and performing their last sad duty for them which could be but poorly done at the best.
As soon as we had the opportunity, we went around to see what execution we had done where there had been sharp fighting but we found they had removed the most of their dead in the front and nothing was left to mark the spot where they fell but their blood which they had shed as free as water. And where there were trees, they bore the marks of the struggle and will bear them for the coming generations to look at and wonder. There were two houses on our campground that had over 50 bullet holes through them and some of the tents that are not over 5 feet square had over 20 holes in them and even cups sitting on the ground had ball holes through them so you may imagine how the lead come over to us from an overwhelming force. But it is over now and our dead are buried and the wounded are cared for. But some of the enemy got so bad befores we got around to bury them that they could not be buried and they are there as a warning to the living.
We are now marched back and camped nearly 7 miles from the battleground and are in the same camp almost that we went into after the battle and here we got dry for the first time after the fight and ventured to sleep over night without our shoes on. We marched here through the hardest rain I think I ever saw. The rain came down in torrents and every little hollow had to be waded, taking us sometimes into the waist. And one place we had to wait for the water to go down before we ventured to cross and then we slung our ammunition boxes over our heads and in went some of the small ones, going into the armpits. But we are here now having it quite easy, making preparations for the battle which I trust is to be the final one, and I do not know but it has begun already for there has been heavy firing on the right all day. ¹
I received those needles and so forth all sound but the needles are rather small and if you would send me some larger one I would like it. And you might send me a thimble in a newspaper perhaps. The letter you sent me before this one has not got here yet. It seems as though there was something the matter of the mail for this is the first letter I have had in near a month.
Excuse all mistakes and write soon. P. S. This is in haste from A. H. Bancroft